TERRE HAUTE —
Zeppo Marx gazed up at it.
Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt saw it, too. So did some of America’s most notorious mobsters.
In fact, anyone who spent even a few minutes in the Terre Haute Federal Building courtroom during its active era — 1935-2009 — had to see “The Signing of the Magna Carta,” a mural on the wall behind the judge’s bench. In the words of gas-station tour guides, “you can’t miss it.” Really. The artwork dominates the room, spanning 20 feet wide and 20 feet tall. Shelbyville-born artist Frederick Webb Ross gave Marx, Hunt, the gangsters, other defendants, lawyers, jurors, witnesses and audience members plenty to see as their minds wandered.
Ironically, though hundreds of outsiders viewed the picture when obligated to visit the U.S. District Court on the second floor of the Terre Haute Federal Building, only a fraction of Vigo County residents have seen the rare, magnificent Ross mural in person. That situation will soon change.
Next month, Indiana State University opens its Scott College of Business in that same building, now known as Federal Hall. Contractors are wrapping up the final steps of a $20 million renovation of the stone-and-metal structure, converting it into classrooms and offices. It once housed the U.S. Post Office; local branches of the Social Security Administration; the Wage and Hours Division of the U.S. Department of Labor; the IRS; U.S. bankruptcy court; federal clerk’s office; military recruiters; and the Vigo County ag agent.
It’s most high-profile space, though, belonged to the federal courtroom, which ISU intends to use for banquets, workshops, speeches and community townhall-style meetings.
The national spotlight shined on the courtroom during the sweltering summer of 1959. Federal agents had busted the nation’s largest illegal gambling syndicate on Nov. 29, 1957, in — you guessed it — downtown Terre Haute. The trial, nearly two years later, involved more than 100 subpoenaed witnesses and gamblers, including Marx and Hunt, who used the Terre Haute bookmakers.
That trial lasted six colorful, grueling weeks. So everybody there got lots of time to study the Magna Carta mural.
Those unwitting art patrons may not have understood what they were seeing on that wall behind the judge. Ross’ graphic features the larger-than-life figures of King John I of England, rebellious barons challenging his authority, soldiers, horses and even a dog. The mural is so large, it comes in three panels, which Ross crafted in his studio in New York City and had shipped back to Indiana for assembly in Terre Haute by Public Works Administration employees.
If not for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal remedies for the Great Depression, the mural would not exist here. The short-lived Public Works of Art Project by the U.S. Treasury funded Ross’ project. He was 49 years old when he took on the job, working as an illustrator, painter and muralist in the Big Apple. Ross attended Indianapolis Shortridge High School, studied art in Indy, left for more instruction in New York, and continued his arts education in France, Italy and England. Back in New York, he finished the Magna Carta mural for the still-under-construction Terre Haute Federal Building, dated it June 19, 1934, and shipped it off.
The rest of Ross’ life story remains a mystery. Even his death date is unknown.
One facet of Ross is certain. “He was a fine artist, but a poor history student,” U.S. Magistrate and Terre Haute native Craig McKee pointed out in one of the federal courthouse’s final official activities, a 2009 citizenship ceremony.
The renovations by ISU, and the U.S. General Services Administration before that, cleaned the mural to its original brightness. Those touchups could not fix its historical inaccuracies, though.
At its base, Ross drew an ornate nameplate, with “The Signing of the Magna Charta” on the top line (using its variant spelling), and on the bottom, “Through this Document Government Exists According to Law not Power.” In between, Ross added a date — “June 15-1214 A.D.”
The year should have been 1215.
And that’s not all.
The scene shows a rather disgusted looking King John signing a parchment, watched by barons and armed soldiers in the meadow of a forest at Runnymede in southern England. It looks dramatic, but the original Magna Carta contained no signatures. The common practice in 13th-century Europe was for kings to affix their royal seal to a treaty or document, thus giving it authenticity.
But, aside from the date thing and the king’s actual actions, Ross’ gigantic picture still delivers the ultimate message — the Magna Carta was a big deal.
It was written by about 40 barons, angered by King John’s tyrannical actions. They confronted him at Runnymede, and the king gave in to their demands to avert a civil war, according to the U.S. National Archives. In reality, the barons had no interest in the plight of the common man, but their Magna Carta endured the test of time, and wound up inspiring the American Revolution, and the U.S. Constitution.
In fact, the Fifth Amendment, probably invoked countless times in that Terre Haute federal courtroom, draws from the Magna Carta — “No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Terre Hauteans and the ISU community will soon be able to admire the origins of a free society without a standoff in an English meadow or having to be on trial in a courtroom. But when you see the “1214 A.D.” and the quill in King John’s hand, just remember — Ross’ mural is art, not a page in a history book, so don’t make a federal case out of it.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TERRE HAUTE —
Zeppo Marx gazed up at it.
- Opinion Columns
RONN MOTT: Knicks
The big noise in the NBA is whether Carmelo Anthony will stay with the New York Knicks or go elsewhere.
If my memory serves, and it doesn’t always, Carmelo left the Denver Nuggets, the team that drafted him, to play in the bright lights of the Big Apple. It was loudly proclaimed at the time that Carmelo wanted to play for a championship team. The Knicks’ ownership bought a bunch of players and spent a whole bunch of money to aid Carmelo in helping the Knicks to get to a championship.
RONN MOTT: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington
I remember when by edict the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were lumped into a single celebration called “Presidents Day.” I thought it was stupid then, and I still do.
LIZ CIANCONE: Antiques show better than any modern programs
I’m not a big fan of television.
KELLY HAWES: It’s time to take politics out of redistricting
A bill to form a bipartisan redistricting commission apparently died in the Indiana Senate last week.
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
THOMAS L. STEIGER: Creativity requires freedom from the risks of failure
Last week I wrote about the themes that emerged from the panel discussion by five Wabash Valley members of the “creative class.”
Flashpoint: Everyone would benefit from responsibly expanding health coverage for Hoosiers
A medical epidemic is one of the worst scenarios a hospital can face — when a significant portion of the population is suddenly struck with a life-threatening illness.
RONN MOTT: Independent thinking in a rapidly changing world
I am a rather independent person. Oh, I don’t belong to any radical, political organization.
RONN MOTT: Ukraine
It’s quiet in Ukraine as I write this but, trust me, it won’t be quiet very long.
RONN MOTT: The Olympics
In the medal count in the Olympics, we ended in second place. In times past, without infusion of money, training, etc., second place might have been OK. For this sports-crazy nation, it is not OK.
LIZ CIANCONE: Preference wins over etiquette every time
It’s a source of amusement to me when I read about the trivia which concerns some folks.
THOMAS L. STEIGER: Fostering creativity prime mission in teaching
As part of ISU’s College of Arts and Science’s Community Semester program, I organized a panel discussion on creativity by a panel of what some would call members of the Wabash Valley’s “creative class.”
MARK BENNETT: Blessings of a long, cold, snowy winter
As spring, summer arrive, Hoosiers will appreciate icy months (well, maybe a little)
RONN MOTT: Shirley Temple was sweet as you can be
The year I was born, Shirley Temple was the richest actress in America and, certainly, the most beloved of actresses as well.
RONN MOTT: The Olympics
I have to say these Olympics are doing well. Especially since it’s the Winter Olympics and they seem to be doing it without snow! It isn’t the first Olympics to manufacture snow for ski slopes and such, and the way the weather is going, it may not be the last.
RONN MOTT: Another death
Michael Dunn was attending his son’s wedding. With him, his fiance, or girlfriend, and he had driven her to a nearby convenience store, pulled up beside an SUV that was blaring its music loud enough to hear on the moon, and it made Dunn angry. An argument about the music ensued and it did not get quieter. Dunn said something to his lady friend about really hating this thug music. There was movement inside the SUV and Dunn said he saw the barrel of a shotgun and decided to defend himself. He shot up the SUV and killed a teenage boy.
LIZ CIANCONE: Valentine’s more fun when we were young
I, for one, am glad that it’s over and I have a year before I’m asked to buy a goodie for my valentine.
KIEL MAJEWSKI: Can’t we all just embrace the common good?
Note: After HJR-3 failed to pass the Indiana Senate, state Sen. Mike Delph of Carmel took to Twitter to air his views in a prolonged, frank series of tweets that drew much attention on Thursday and Friday. Delph supported HJR-3. This is my open letter to Senator Delph.
MARK BENNETT: Healing Indiana’s Achilles’ heel
Illinois served as the easy target.
At that moment.
RONN MOTT: Woody Allen
Woody Allen — writer, comedian, film maker, actor, director — has recently been accused of sexually molesting one of the adopted children of Mia Farrow. I don’t believe it.
MARK BENNETT: Quest for the perfect Valentine’s Day gesture may not involve gifts
You’ll need a broom, a pickup truck, trash bins, shop hooks and aspirin.
Filming a “Sanford and Son” remake? Preparing for the apocalypse?
RONN MOTT: Pete Seeger
I was saddened to learn that Pete Seeger had passed away. He died in his home along the Hudson River in upstate New York. You think of folk songs and you think of the hill country of the Appalachians, and perhaps the dusty plains of the American southwest. But Pete Seeger was born in New York City. He was born to musical parents and his father was studying folk music and going where it was played. Young Pete went with his dad.
LIZ CIANCONE: Why do we bother that rodent on a cold day?
I have a bone to pick with Punxsutawney Phil. I may have to get in line or take a number, but I am willing to wait it out.
MARK BENNETT: Yeah, yeah, yeah... For some grownups, first impression not so fab
We’re pretty smart here in middle America.
Our DNA carries the common-sense chromosome. From birth, Midwestern culture begins honing us into the most rational and perceptive of human beings. Sure, our prisons are full, but generally, we mean well. And we’re wise.
RONN MOTT: Is Mother Nature color-blind?
It would appear Mother Nature does not like the grays and browns of the winter season. The snow and ice barely gets off the ground by melting and, whop, we have another snow.
RONN MOTT: Illness
I suppose because it is in the mountains, the kids of Denver have missed some school because of snow days. But I think a great many are going to be really ill because of the way the Denver Broncos played in the Super Bowl.
RONN MOTT: Super Bowl sick
No sporting event in the history of mankind, not even the great, classic machine of death, the Roman Colosseum games, had so much pre-publicity as has Super Bowl 48.
LIZ CIANCONE: Few can top the tale of 18 cats
I joined the other ladies at the round table at the Sports Center the other morning, and someone asked Frieda about her cats.
MARK BENNETT: Remembering the less glitzy days on Manning’s road to the Super Bowl
A blur of memories.
They’ll flicker fast and furious tonight, like a spinning Rolodex, when Peyton Manning runs onto the MetLife Stadium turf in Jersey City, as a Denver Bronco, playing for a Super Bowl ring against the Seattle Seahawks. Most Hauteans will experience flashbacks, too.
RONN MOTT: The weather vs. football
When I was a boy and became aware of what I learned was football, it was in the 1940s, the season at the collegiate level was nine games.
- More Opinion Columns Headlines
- RONN MOTT: Knicks